Rita Duffy

Rita Duffy fuses the historic story of the Titanic with the present in Legacy

History is like a palimpsest. It is a narrative that is layered and worried over, a scrolled parchment, new events superimposed on the fading traces of earlier happenings. The Romantic writer Thomas de Quincey described the human brain as such, 'everlasting layers of ideas, images, feelings' wrapped up in an all-remembering membrane, consciousness like a tightly wound spool of memory and experience.

Legacy, Rita Duffy’s new exhibition at Gormley’s Fine Art gallery on the Lisburn Road, is like a rumination on this figuration of consciousness. Looking back to the now mythic tale of the Titanic, Duffy fuses this historic moment with the present. In doing so, she reinforces the time continuum, highlighting how this iconic moment in history is part of the substance of Belfast’s 2010 collective cultural consciousness.

The men who worked to build the Titanic, the iceberg that sank the White Star Line’s 'unsinkable' steamship, the passengers who perished in the freezing Atlantic on April 14 1912: they are part of Belfast’s historic narrative, part of the cultural history that has made Belfast 2010.

At the centre of this innovative and daring exhibition are four large-scale ink and graphite panels that re-imagine the Titanic in novel, poetic and politically conscious ways. All are diagrammatic cross sections of the ship with a tableaux vivant of figures that illustrate the narrative moment.

'Troubled Ship 2010' repopulates the belly of the ship with an Ulster miscellany: Orangemen in sashes, members of the British army, the wounded lying in doorways, a statue of Queen Victoria, a lion, women banging bin lids (a favoured form of nationalist working-class protest), the iceberg superimposed in the midst of the action.

The heavy freight of the Troubles and its cargo of pain are packed into the doomed vessel and two distinct historical epochs are fused in reciprocal relationship. Different layers of the palimpsest are viewed in an illuminating synthesis. History is folded over on itself, its moments compressed and intermingling in a macro-level consciousness.

'Titanic After Goya' repopulates the central panel with frenzied, tortured faces and twisted bodies that recall the Spanish master’s later period. 'The Disasters of War' and 'Los Caprichos', even 'Courtyard with Lunatics' and the levitating figures of 'Witches in the Air', are referenced here.

Darkness, psychological turmoil and nightmare terrain from 1790s Spain is now layered on the sinking vessel. Duffy here seems to be engaging with Goya’s artistic mission to show just how the sleep of reason produces monsters (and paramilitaries and icebergs). Her re-contextualising and cross-referencing of history points to the universality and eternal recurrence of human tragedy, conflict and struggle.

'Tilting 2010' and 'Heart of Darkness' complete the cycle. The former shows a thawing iceberg and a mellower palette of cornflower blue, cerulean and navy, the strife and mass of bodies replaced by spare individuals. A rudder at one end of the ship suggests the possibility of motion and salvation. The doomed ship is re-envisaged as a vessel dragging its figures forward or sideways with an ineradicable force perhaps, a gravitational pull out of the abyss and the deep-sea depths.

As well as more traditional representations of the Titanic and the iceberg (an ever recurring theme in Duffy’s work), there are other flippant re-workings of historicity.

'The Union Waltz' comically and satirically superimposes largely Unionist figures onto the pages of an old dance manual describing the fancy footwork of the foxtrot and the tango. Carson raises his arm above a page on the Blackpool walk while Paisley seems to salute the merits of rhythm dancing.

It’s a clever dressing down of Unionist conservatism, drawing out the parallels between the exhausting pirouettes of Unionist nay-saying and the nifty, self-conscious feats of strictly ballroom. It’s also an incredibly effective way of asking hardnosed Unionism to lighten up and join the dance.

The palimpsest theme again resounds in the recovery of old documents, letters reworked and drawn over, old bank statements repeated and gathered with nautical imagery painted on the surface, the present inscribed over the past. 

An installation piece has bags made from red, white and blue recycled flags stuffed with human hair. Figures of the empire are poised before the iceberg and men crouching, stripped to the waist, atavistic and yet contemporary. A balaclava-clad paramilitary speaks into a microphone over a torn page on the waltz cotillion.

Legacy is a mosaic of memories and historical reflections, a fresh look at the Titanic and a witty peeling pack of Ulster’s palimpsest. Its range of reference is dizzying. Duffy seems the shrewdest and perhaps most inventive female artist working in Northern Ireland today. No other visual artist engages with the fabric of our history with quite so much gumption, imagination and chutzpah.

Legacy continues at Gormley's Fine Art until April 8. More details are available on the gallery's website.

Joanne Savage